“These are my ninja shoes! I can do anything in these!”
“This dress makes me look like a troll in a nun’s habit.”
From Ninja to troll nun, clothing has a definite influence over how we feel about ourselves, and plays a part in our life story. It’s your uniform, like an employee of your own identity. Your different articles of clothing have the possibility to act as footnotes. They enrich who you visually are. They give a bit more credibility to the overall message you are putting out there.
So many life stories revolve around articles of clothing. From hating your older sibling’s hand me downs, because they make you feel like a second class citizen, to loving your grandmother’s sweater because it makes you feel safe and comfortable and at home. Wearing that story-rich clothing can add greater depth to what you’re showing of yourself. New or old, garments have something to say.
So that’s what these next couple of installments will all be about.
Fact: I wear my grandmother’s wedding dress to work.
My grandmother is extremely stylish. In her late eighties, living in a senior’s residence, she still insists on wearing her full length black mink coat, leopard print chapeau, and black leather gloves to church every Sunday. The woman never departs the house without a light sprinkling of Channel no.5 and an assortment of gold jewellery from her extensive collection. This is how she separates herself from the life at the senior’s residence. She is lucid, clear of mind, and chose to be there. She now she chooses to look better than anyone there and maintain her status as a lady. She’s used clothing all her life to do this.
Clothing and jewellery separated her from her day job. By day she was a cleaning lady at a high school. In the evenings and on weekends she was Coco Channel’s best friend and collaborator in fashion. It brought her dignity, it brought her confidence, it was when she was in her element. It was the real her.
Five years ago on Christmas Eve I decided to plunder the clothing in my grandmother’s basement. I came across an unassuming and pretty flower print dress. It was signature ‘40s style. It could have been worn by one of the Andrew sisters. The shoulders were accentuated and then brought in with a cuff by the elbow. The bust had pleats that gathered in at the waste. The skirt was A-line and finished below the knee. I asked my grandmother about it and after a long moment of contemplation, she finally smiled and said “you know, I got married in this dress, in Germany.”
My grandmother spent a large part of the Second World War in a work camp outside of Freiburg Germany. She is Ukrainian, and managed to get to Germany on foot. It took her six months to hike over the Carpathian Mountains and cross Poland. The dress I was looking at was one of the few things she brought with her. She endured sickness, bombing, and all other manner of hardship that war can bring. To cope with the danger, her older sister insisted that she get married. It was for her safety, and there just happened to be an eligible suitor from their home town in who had his eye out for my lovely grandma. But the truth was she was scared.
As she recounts it, she had a very intense case of cold feet leading up to the wedding. A middle-aged German woman, a friend of the family, was so excited for her that she donated her wedding dress. Unfortunately this same wedding dress was about six sizes too big and made my grandmother look like she was drowning in a giant meringue made of lace and satin. When trying it on she burst into tears. It was the final straw. She couldn’t go through with the wedding. Her sister had to step in with a pep talk.
The wedding, the husband, the whole thing happened. The hideous cream puff dress, however, did not. Suddenly things became a little easier, a little clearer, and little more possible to handle. Instead of white lace and satin, she walked down the aisle in her favourite flower print dress, made for her by hand by a seamstress back inUkraine. It was her armor, it gave her that extra bit of strength, it made her feel beautiful, and capable. The wedding turned out, it was beautiful, small but had everything in its right place – including love.
Years later when I found the dress and heard this story I no longer saw the dress as just another piece of clothing. It was a historical document and a talisman of strength. My grandmother washed the dress by hand for me. She got rid of the mothball smell. She sent it home with my father a week or so later. There are no zippers on this dress; it either fits or it doesn’t. So when I tried it on and it fit like a glove, I called my grandma and we both teared up. Two months later it was among the few belongings I took with me when I traveled for a year on my own. It became my reminder that things will work out just fine.
If my grandmother could walk across the Carpathian Mountains, live in a German work camp, endure the Second World War with all its atrocities, then I could definitely navigate my quintessential post university year of travel!